Rescuing the Bottom Billion From the Pope’s Peronist Economics

It is not difficult both to dislike and to criticize consumerism. It is often as vacuous as it is unattractive. Last week, for example, my wife took me to something called an ‘outlet village,’ an expanse of shops built in faux Eighteenth Century style that sold designer products at allegedly low prices (though, wanting nothing in particular, they seemed high enough to me). There was actually a queue to obtain entry into Prada whose products are hardly those of first or primary necessity. However deep our economic crisis, this was no queue for rations in wartime; and though I am far from an egalitarian I felt uneasy that there were so many people wanting and even eager to pay hundreds or perhaps thousands for what seemed to me to be aesthetically cheap and vulgar gewgaws while so many people await their heating bill with extreme anxiety and trepidation.

If I am honest, however, what really appalled me about the ‘outlet village,’ which, incidentally, proclaimed itself a ‘community,’ was the appalling taste of the moneyed masses. Though they shopped all day for clothes – you couldn’t buy so much as a newspaper, let alone a book, in the ‘community’ – I didn’t see a single smartly dressed person among them, let alone an elegantly dressed one. On the contrary, they were to a man and woman attired in expensive slum- casual garments whose brands alone distinguished them from what the poor would wear. As consumers, then, they weren’t even very good at what they did, namely consume. They wore brand names as if they were medals awarded in the war to distinguish themselves as individuals from others in some way. If the justification for disparities in wealth is that the wealthy beautify the world, these people failed utterly to justify their prosperity. Purchasing power without power of discrimination is (at any rate for me) dispiriting to behold; but I am under no illusion that if income and assets were more equally distributed in society things would be any better from the aesthetic point of view, irrespective of the economic or social effects of redistribution.

Appalled or even disgusted as I was by what I thought was this vast outdoor exhibition of mass vacuity and spiritual emptiness, to say nothing of absence of taste, I kept enough control of my gut reaction not to suppose that it would be a very good guide to or motive for economic or social policy. It is very easy when appalled by one’s fellow human beings to want impose virtue (or taste) upon them, but this is a temptation that should be resisted. Deeper reflection is necessary; intemperance and impatience usually end in something worse than they were designed to amend.

I was therefore not completely out of sympathy with some of the premises of the Pope’s latest apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel; but it seems to me that he has yielded in it to the temptation to mistake an initial apprehension of what is wrong as an understanding of economics.

Papa FrancescoHis apprehension of certain trends in modern societies was one which many people share, so many in fact that it was almost banal or at any rate commonplace (precisely as was my reaction to the ‘outlet village’ and those who shopped there). We – by ‘we’ I mean all who are likely to read this – are aware that a life of consumption of ever more material goods is profoundly unsatisfying and in the end self-defeating. We all know that an egotistical individualism is deeply unattractive and not even satisfying to the many millions of whom it is the leading characteristic. Even the improved means of communication that the Pope extols in his exhortation may not only conduce to self-preoccupation but serve to isolate people further. A million monologues is not a conversation.

So far, so good – that is to say so far, so banal. But the Pope, alas, then indulges in a little Peronist economics. I hesitate to call his theorizing mediaeval because scholars will inform me that, in fact, some of the scholastics were far more sophisticated in their economic understanding than we usually credit them with, getting well beyond denunciations of usury. I am not sure the Pope has got much further.

He writes, inter alia, that ‘Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed on the powerless.’ This is demagoguery of the purest kind, the kind that ruined the Pope’s native Argentina seventy years ago and from whose effects it still has not fully recovered.

‘As a consequence,’ continues the pope, ‘masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.’

If we put the two sentences together, a certain conclusion is inescapable: if only the powerful stopped cannibalizing the powerless, the latter would have work, possibility and the means of escape. To change slightly the framework of reference, four legs good, two legs bad.

The Pope is loose and inaccurate in his thinking. The trickle-down theory of wealth may or may not be correct, but those who hold it do not express, and never have expressed, ‘a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…’ On the contrary, according to the theory it is not the rich whose goodness benefits the poor, but the system that allowed them to become rich, even if the rich should turn out to be hard-hearted skinflints. A system of redistribution, by contrast, really does require the goodness of at least the superior echelons of the system, faith in which is genuinely rather crude and naïve.

Most egregiously, the Pope quotes from St John Chrysostom:

Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and

take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods that we hold,

but theirs.

This could only be true if an economy were a zero-sum game, if my wealth were your poverty and vice versa. But if the world has learnt anything since the death of St John Chrysostom one thousand six hundred years ago, it is that an economy such as ours is and ought to be dynamic rather than static. I am not poor because Bill Gates is rich; as it happens in enriching himself he enriched me, though the ratio of his wealth to mine is probably greater than the ratio of my wealth to the poorest person in my society. I do not care; it does no harm to me unless I let it do me harm by dwelling upon it. In the meantime, I have enough to eat and much else besides.

This is not to say that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, far from it. The world is full of dishonesty, corruption, cruelty, indifference and injustice. But Peronist demagoguery dressed up as apostolic exhortation will not improve matters, quite the reverse.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

About the Author

Comments

  1. rob says

    I believe the Pope is writing about the economy and economics he saw in Argentina. He is a 3rd world Pope — and we would be foolish to assume that he understands western — or even eastern! — economies. He, no doubt, read books and had discussions — but this Pope was a man of action in Argentina and had no time to delve into the depths of economics.

    So what we get is a man who speaks from his heart about that which he knows.

    What he does not know, he cannot speak to.

    The problem is — he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know — and he presumes that his limited 3rd world Argentinian economics lessons apply everywhere.

    Its a shame he is so wrong. But it is SHAMEFUL that others around the Pope let him spout-off (exhort even!) on something he clearly has no true understanding about.

    As for me, the fact that he is soooooo wrong about economics and trickle down economic theory in particular — makes me wonder if he is equally as far-wrong about theological issues?

    • Corey says

      Rob: I would encourage you not to assume that wrong on one thing makes wrong on all things. Pick an area of knowledge or life where you have been “…soooooo wrong…,” (which I do not concede the Pope to be — not entirely — on economics; but even if he was…) and then examine whether that has made you wrong in most other areas of importance. I would posit that this is not the case, and then ask you to avoid that hasty generalization toward the Pope as well. :) One can be very right, and very wrong, about very different things (or even related ones).

  2. Ryan says

    I haven’t read the pope’s exhortation, so I could be wrong about this, but from reading the quotes and information provided in this article, it seems to me he’s not talking about economics so much as charity. I’m inclined to interpret St. John Chrysostom’s words as stating the importance of alms-giving, not as a communist manifesto. As I said, I haven’t read any of these quotes in their original context, so I could be wrong, but this would seem to make more sense in light of what I know of Christian theology.

  3. dr. james willingham says

    While I sympathize with much of what you say, tell what we will do with the “useless eaters” as H.G. Wells call the unemployed and the unemployable, terms which fit most of the vast multitudes inhabiting the earth today? After all, some 23 years ago I wrote an evaluation of some materials on jobs in the future in which computerization, automation, and robotics basically did away with the common man’s method of making a living. In fact, they were already on the way out then. For example, if memory serves correctly, one of the papers called attention to a Burger King, a 24/7 operation employing some 400 people. They automated, computerized, hired a laser cooker technician from Germany at $90/hr. and his Japanese Assistant at $60?hr., and kept 18 of the original work force as clean up crew (their salary was at the bottom of the scale). That left 380 people unemployed…in, of all things, the food service industry, a labor intensive industry. There were others, but my point is that, if they can do that with the food industry (and remember all you see on an auto assembly line now is mostly flying robotic arms with now and then a technician to keep the machines running right), just imagine what they can do with virtually all of the many forms of employment and, indeed, they are doing it now. Who will need writers, when one can program and A.I. Computer to do the work. And, if the A.I. is lacking, still they can make do with what will pass for such in a dumb downed populace. And all of this, when we seem to be on the verge of going to the stars and will need everyone in order to settle the million billion planets that might be available.

  4. Jonathan Gress-Wright says

    I agree with Ryan that St John Chrysostom must surely have been talking about charity. Remember that “poor” in pre-modern societies means those who are on the cusp of starvation, i.e. the poor that you can still encounter in many desperate parts of sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the obese “poor” of our developed societies. When St John talks about “taking away their livelihood” he is referring to the plain fact that their lives literally depended on charity: they had no opportunity to make their own living. Bruce Charlton has discussed this important shift in the meaning of “poor” with reference to Christian charity on his blog.

    St John was absolutely not a communist. He exhorts his audience to give to the poor:

    “not so much because of anxiety for the poor but because I care for your souls. For they [the poor] will have some comfort, if not from you, yet from some other quarter; or even if they be not comforted, but perish by hunger, the harm to them will be no great matter. In what way did poverty and wasting by hunger injure Lazarus? But none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor.”

    (Source: http://www.incommunion.org/2007/05/09/st-john-chrysostom-and-the-problem-of-wealth/)

    These words seem almost unbelievably callous to the modern ear conditioned by leftist views. Does he really not care if the poor starve to death because the rich refuse to give? This passage makes clear that, according to St John (and all traditional Christian thought), the purpose of charity is the spiritual benefit of the giver, not the material benefit of the receiver.

    Christian ethics is founded on obligations and actually has little or no room for “rights”. The rich have an obligation to give alms – but the poor do not have a corresponding right to demand them. There is a difference between a rich man freely away giving his wealth, and some third person forcing him to do the same. This holds even if one pretends that government is impartial, e.g. a democracy answering to the “will of the people”, since the reality is always that one block of voters, the have-nots, simple vote themselves the property of the haves. It’s nothing more than legalized theft.

    That being said, I think I see some problems with your overall glorification of capitalism. We can both agree that consumerism is a vice, and I can accept that capitalism is merely an economic system and does not logically entail abandonment of aesthetic values. I think there’s a problem, however, with treating pursuit of wealth as a virtue, and also even, to some extent, with the glorification of “taste”.

    Wealth (rather than conspicuous consumption) as a sign of virtue is in origin a Calvinist thought, since their doctrine of predestination required visible signs of election. The Calvinists understood the spiritual dangers of rank hedonism, but not the more subtle danger of avarice. Hear instead how St John Chrysostom warns against pursuit of wealth:

    “How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business, that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction? The desire is deep sown in the minds of men, even of those who seem to be religious. ”

    The implications of this are interesting. An economic system that encourages and rewards pursuit of wealth, even in the absence of a consumerist culture, is a bad system from the point of view of Christian morals, since the very focus on accumulating material possessions takes a man’s heart away from God. Ideally, a Christian society should *discourage* pursuit of wealth! Further pursuit of this idea leads one to posit that a stable, conservative, stratified and hierarchical society, in which people are born into wealth or poverty and its consequent set of obligations, is spiritually healthier than a dynamic society in which everyone is trying to climb the social ladder and make his own life more materially comfortable and secure.

    As for “taste”, even here one should consider how one defines the term. Are one’s aesthetic values spiritual or material? By your choice of dress or food, are you aiming to flatter your fallen senses, or to elevate your mind to higher things? This is perhaps too much for this one comment, but remember that, as Christians, our first concern is worldliness, and a worldly spirit is not restricted to communism, capitalism or any other ideology.

    • gabe says

      Nice posting:

      However, I would point out that St john, as with all of the early purveyors (and i do not mean that pejoratively) of Christian morals were accustomed to a world in which wealth accumulation was more of a “zero sum game.”

      The point of the posting by Mr Dalrymple, as is true of any effective defense of capitalism, is that the capitalist economic system is NOT a zero-sum game.
      No previously conceived of economic system has created wealth, and distributed it, in such an abundance as has capitalism. If one, incidentally, or even willfully, gains great wealth while produce countless greater wealth for the rest of the human family, that individual should be applauded.

      Remember that muckrackers to the contrary, John D. Rockefeller improved the living condition of countless millions of Americans by his ability to reduce the cost of lighting / heating oil(s) from dollars to pennies while simultaneously helping to fuel (pun intended) an almost unstoppable industrial boom that reverberated throughout the globe. Ditto Henry ford, Andrew Carnegie, etc etc.
      etc.
      Let us try to understand St john’s impulses as the times dictated and not transfer those wholesome but time dependent thoughts to our own time.

      Take care
      gabe

      • Jonathan Gress-Wright says

        Gabe, thank you for your response. But please re-read the second of the quotations from the Golden-Mouthed. In some places St John seems to be concerned with the plight of the poor, but in that passage he is clearly taking aim at accumulation of wealth itself. This supports my contention, which you may have missed, that pursuing wealth in itself is spiritually dangerous. So pleading that capitalism generates wealth for all from the labor of few is actually beside the point; if that is capitalism, then this only proves that capitalism threatens the salvation of everyone, not just the rich.

        “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God”. I often hear attempts to explain this stern saying away, but the force of the words does not tolerate those attempts. The fact remains that material possessions are a serious threat to salvation, since salvation depends (among else) on non-possessiveness, and the more you possess, the more difficult this becomes. Given how wealthy our society in the developed world has become, this should be ringing alarm bells very loudly.

        • gabe says

          Jonathon:

          I would not disagree with your comments. Indeed, I would probably extend them – it is not just the pursuit of wealth that is spiritually dangerous but also power and ambition.
          Witness the likes of john McCain, Obama, etc or even the executives with whom we may have worked who “corrupt’ themselves in pursuit of power, influence or the adoration of the media.
          However, the proper concern for the less fortunate may, at times, also conduce to a spiritual decline when one places an “ideological” bias above the facts of a situation (no, I am not so accusing you) and consequently views all material acquisition as dangerous and destructive of “comity.” this is not the case. The old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” may be appropriate here. One of the end results of successful capitalist enterprises is creation of jobs / employment for many thousands of people. Is this not of value?
          The point is that all too often people are willing to discard the good because it is not perfect due to concern for those who have not “made it.” We then end up with monstrosities such as Obamacare – here, we punish the majority because of a mistaken concern for the “poor.”
          I submit that there are better alternatives. Is it moral to so punish those who have worked and succeeded in order to reward those who for one reason or another have not been successful? In many instances, their failure is due to their own poor choices.

          That is my concern!

          take care
          gabe

  5. says

    Dalrymple’s analysis is as sloppy as the Pope’s. Even Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is better, for all its shortcomings. Why didn’t Dalrymple, or the Pope for that matter, go back to the previous Catholic Social Teaching documents and build on what has been said in those? Benedict created a fresh starting point with Caritas in Veritate and that needs to be developed.

    Dalyrmple’s comments on Gates are particularly egregious. Gates has made his fortune by exploiting the monopolies it is possible to win through exploitation of the US Patent laws, and using the near-monopoly to sell indifferent products to an ill-informed market.

    • gabe says

      Henry:

      Would not disagree with you regarding Gates’ tactics. I am not at all fond of him.
      However, one thing to note – ever since the settlement imposed by the Justice Department, it is now more expensive to purchase MS Software – so much for the concern for the consumer – poor or otherwise.
      Also, Gates & company essentially stole the GUI from Jobs who stole it from Xerox. what a happy band of thieves we exalt!

      take care
      gabe

  6. Sabine Thorson says

    This may come as a shock to some people but within the Catholic Church poverty is not, in itself, regarded as a crime. Nuns and monks take vows of poverty.

    And when did the pope ever claim to be ‘an economist’? When was he required to be?

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>